Monday, April 05, 2010

In the footsteps of James Hillman 23





How do we Select the Nutrients to Nourish the Acorn?

Given the theory or rather myth of the acorn which Hillman has discussed in detail, teased out at length and come at from so many angles, he now asks the above question which I have made the title of this short paragraph.

Home Education

In these modern times we tend to dismiss the value of home education, indeed we tend to scorn it.  Hillman advances once again details from the biographies of the great thinkers and movers throughout the history of Western civilization.  He begins by adverting to the fact that the great John Stuart Mill was schooled entirely at home by his father who taught him Greek at three and Latin at eight.  He notes that by the time J.S. Mill (1806 – 1873) was fourteen  he had read most of the major ancient texts in the original.  His was a great, erudite and sensitive soul, and he is manily known today for his theory of Utilitarianism and his ideas of Liberty.  As a scholar and M.P. he advocated the Rights of Women and pleaded for an "easing of the burdens" on Ireland.  This sensitive soul, also, experienced a nervous breakdown as a young man.  Anyway, Hillman's argument is that his father and his father's friends had a great influence on and nourished his acorn as it were. 

Other "freak Victorian masterminds"  and polymaths listed by Hillman are our very own William Rowan Hamilton (1805 –1865) and Francis Galton (1822 – 1911).  Our man lists many other exceptionl individual and scholars who had their acorns nurtured by the system of education given them primarily at home, by scholar friends of their parents and only secondly at school and university.  However, he does mention other genuiuses who read penny dreadfuls and who engaged in pure fantasy.  Thank goodness, there has to be a more or less "normal" genius somewhere, or is "normal" the incorrect adjective to use with genius with by its very nature shares in the extraordinary?  I get the feeling that the great Victorian masterminds lived in a sort of "hot house atmosphere" where they were likely to explode - no wonder poor J.S. Mill had a nervous breakdown, given the intensity of instruction which his father put him through!  Let's listen to Hillman's passionate and poetic words once more here and marvel at them:

The soul, they say, needs models for its mimesis in order to recollect eternal verities and primordial images.  If in its life on earth it does not meet these as mirrors of the soul's core, mirrors in which the soul can recognize its truths, then its flame will die and its genius wither.  Ideal heroes and heroines provide the ectypes on earth that release the guiding archetypes of the soul.  (Ibid., 159)
Now an ectype is a copy of an original, and, therefore different from a prototype.  Consequently such ectypes can and do have the capacity to release the guiding archetypes already innately in the soul.

Parental Fantasy

Hillman writes several pages on this interesting topic namely, how far does both parents' or even one parent's or indeed the guardian's fantasy of what the child might become influence the child's acorn?  How do parents imagine the child?  "What do they see in this little person who has dropped in their laps?" (Ibid., 161) 

Then, our author is interesting on teachers and mentors, because while the parents' main role is the nurturing of the child in as holistic a way as possible, it is not necessarily their role to nurture the acorn per se :

To expect primary caretakers, for example, parents, to see through the child into the acorn, to know who is there in nuce, and to tend to its concerns - is far too much.  That is why teachers and mentors come into the world.  He or she is another special person, often someone whom we fall in love with early, or who falls in love with us; we are two acorns on the same branch, echoing similar ideals.  What heartease and bliss in finding a corresponding soul who singles us out!  How long we move about, desperate to discover someone who can really see us, tell us who we are.  One of the main seductions of early love, and early therapy, arises from the desire to meet a person who can (or who you believe can, or who can at least pretend to) see you. (ibid., 163)
Hence, it is difficult for a parent to teach their own child to the fullest extent.  If they do so, they have to say to themselves and to their child: "I am your teacher now, not your parent," and "you are my student now, and not my child."  Such a distinction is indeed hard to make, and, therefore, many teachers choose never to send their children to the school in which they teach if they can at all help it.  This is one reason why they should not send their child to their own school - among many other reasons indeed, I hasten to add.

The Power of the Written (and Spoken) Word

As an existentialist psychotherapist, I am always doubly enchanted when an author quotes another author whom I love.  Needless to say, I have long been a student of R.D. Laing's wonderful existential psychotherapy.  He was a once off - a true and beautiful acorn to sustain the archetypal psychological metaphor here.  It does not surprise me when Hillman says that libraries and books and reading can also nourish the acorn, and that R.D. Laing was a lover of books and that he worked himself through his small local library from shelf to shelf until he was overwhelmed by one book by Kierkegaard.  Let's lsiten to Laing's words as quoted by Hillman:

eating my way through the library, I mean I was looking at all the books... working my way from A to Z...  The first major thing by Kierkegaard that I read ... was one of the peak experiences of my life.  I read that through, without sleeping, over a period of about 34 hours just continually... I'd never seen any reference to him ... that directed me to it.  It was just this complete vista... It just absolutely fitted my mind like a glove... here was a guy who had done it.  I felt somehow or another within me, the flowering of one's life.  (Quoted ibid.,  165)
In a sense it's all something magical, sometrhing connected with wonder.  I'm thinking of the wonder associated with Patrick Kavanagh's early poems, the magic of Lewis Carroll's writings, the sheer imaginative power of the likes of J.R. Tolkien and the later incarnation of a similar but unique daimon in J. K. Rowling.  These are just a handful of imaginative geniuses whom our world is so lucky to have known, for we are truly endebted to them. 

And so, as teachers there is a burden on our shoulders, but not a heavy one once we are aware of it, and that is, our true vocation as educators is the cultivation of the seeds of wonder, beauty, truth, magic and myth, the elusive thing special to all geniuses whether they work within the Sciences or the Arts.  Bryan MacMahon, one of Ireland's greatest short story writers, also a brilliant primary school teacher, knew the magic of wonder and the power of story telling to excite young minds and to help nourishing the daimon innate in each young mind.



Above, the library of a good friend in Paris.

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